The study of biology is a complicated one. It’s a science subject that can trip a lot of students up for one particular reason.
Hold on though… If you have your own experiences with this then be sure to comment below with your advice. This isn’t the definitive and perfectly complete guide. What are we missing? Just let us know below.
Biological sciences are definition heavy subjects. In order to move from struggling to skilled you need to learn a new language. These are complex subjects that require a precise vocabulary to do well. If you don’t understand the subtle difference between seemingly similar concepts then you’re missing the point. It may not be a new language exactly but this is one of the best ways to think about it.
Once you understand the language of biology you’re going to be prepared to address the concepts you’re being taught. The concepts look tough at first but after you understand the language they look almost like common sense.
Your Top Priority: Learn The Language
Learning the language of biology can be treated like learning just about any language.
There are two powerful strategies for learning a new language.
1. Active Recall
Active recall is the process of remembering information that you learned. I think about it like using flash cards. You read one side of the flashcard. Then you remember what’s on the other side of the flash card. This remembering strengthens your memory.
Flash cards are awesome when you’re trying to learn vocabulary. It’s an easy way to guarantee you’re using active recall. Reading may give you the illusion of competency but everytime you flip that card you know whether or not you know. Image Source
Immersion is surrounding yourself in that language. It’s the way children learn to speak their first language. When you listen to a language long enough you’re going to learn it. It’s inefficient for learning the basics. It’s only becomes efficient once you understand enough to learn words organically (based on the words context.)
Both strategies are effective but the order is important. You should use active recall to understand the base of the language before you should immerse yourself in the subject. Once you understand the basics you have the tools required to start immersing yourself.
You don’t need to know exactly what phylum means at first but you need to understand enough words to have a clue what it means in context.
By learning the language of biology you’re building the foundation for the rest of the subject. It should be one of the first things you learn in each new section. The words are the tools that let the rest of the subject make sense faster.
I recommend using flash cards and mnemonics to do well in the biological sciences (zoology, botany, anatomy, etc.) It can be easy to get caught up making up thousands of flashcards and mnemonics to memorize everything but it’s unnecessarily complex. Just search on the internet for what you need. Odds are, someone already has an awesome mnemonic for what you’re trying to remember.
Why Biological Sciences Scare New Students
When I first took Anatomy and Physiology, my mind was blown.
I went into the class thinking that I was going to learn about bones and muscles. I thought that would be a fascinating subject. I love the human body. It sounded fun. How hard could it be?
I almost instantly hit a wall in the class.
The first few months were almost completely dedicated to the biology of cells. Every class the teacher would lecture about proto-something-or-another while I’d sit wondering why we would possibly be focusing on such an obscure annoying part of the subject.
Memorizing bones and muscles isn’t all that hard. It’s just taking the time to do it. Memorizing super obscure words and processes that are also super obscure words themselves isn’t easy. It’s a serious challenge.
(I personally think these subjects are better approached starting at the easy to conceptualize areas but that’s not the way most classes work. They focus on the hardest to understand aspects first. Then they move onto the stuff that’s actually interesting for the average student.)
Many students ended up dropping out in the first few weeks.
Cellular biology may suck compared to learning about evolution and classifications of animals but it’s essential you survive it to get to the good stuff. Be prepared for this aspect of your subject to suck.
Zoology and botany may be about animals and plants but animals and plants are about cells. For better or worse, you can’t get to the good stuff until you’re willing to get through the tough stuff.
How To Do Well On Biology Tests
1. Use active recall to memorize the words.
2. Use mnemonics to link related words.
3. Understand the key concepts in each chapter.
4. Select classes based on positive teacher reviews.
5. Prioritize ruthlessly
Going Beyond The Basics: How To Understand Biology
By focusing on understanding the language you will have the base knowledge to pass most classes. It gives you the tools required to understand the concepts the first time you hear them. That’s a big deal.
Learning a subject goes beyond just understanding the words though.
If you want to go further into the subject (and do even better,) you need to worry about a few more factors.
For some more ideas you might be interested in reading these strategies.
This is a subject I bring up a lot but I only do it because it’s worth it.
Find a good teacher.
Sitting through a boring powerpoint lecture doesn’t help you learn. It’s a waste of your time. You might as well be skipping the class and doing something useful with your life.
If you get a good teacher then you’re going to learn dramatically more with dramatically less effort.
Use the following strategies to find a kick-ass teacher:
- Ask other students
- Look for reviews online
- Switch classes if you’re not satisfied
By picking the right teacher you’re ensuring your ability to use class time efficiently.
What about non-class time?
Resources That Don’t Suck
Find resources that don’t suck. For biology, here is a pretty awesome starting point for understanding.
Pitfalls: How Not To Learn
Do not count on your textbook to teach you anything.
Ideally, read it but read it fast and without stressing out about it. The only purpose of reading it is to ensure you know what things it goes over. Even skimming it might be acceptable.
Use the “key concepts” section of the textbook as if it’s the only thing you need to learn from the textbook. It’s not completely true but it will get you 80% of the results with almost no work.
Focus on using only the resources the teacher creates. Use that information to create priorities of what you need to learn. Once you have those priorities: use them.
Don’t worry about learning every obscure fact. Losing a point here or there won’t hurt you much. Losing points because you got stressed out and gave up will hurt you much more. It’s better to learn the words and then focus on the big picture.
After you know what to learn, use any source that you find interesting to reinforce the subject.
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